Florida Senate weighs school, college pandemic concerns

Committee approved measure that would shield universities from lawsuits

FILE - In this Dec. 3, 2020, file photo, students wearing face masks work on computers at Tibbals Elementary School in Murphy, Texas. A new poll from The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that most parents fear that their children are falling behind in school while at home during the pandemic (AP Photo/LM Otero, File) (Lm Otero, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In an effort to offset COVID-19′s impacts on Florida’s education system, a Senate committee Tuesday gave bipartisan support to a proposal that would shield public-school students from testing accountability this year and protect colleges and universities from lawsuits.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved the measure (SB 7070), which includes two proposals by Democrats related to testing and letting parents choose to retain students in their current grade levels.

Lawmakers, parents and educators have raised concerns about such issues because of disruptions this school year --- including many students learning remotely --- during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The bill, in part, would prohibit state standardized assessments from being used “for calculating student performance measurement and evaluating personnel,” an issue proposed by Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Thurston said Tuesday the bill “really does address all of the issues that the stakeholders brought to my concern” related to testing accountability.

The proposal also would prohibit schools from being penalized with lower school grades based on test scores, which in some cases can force low-performing schools to implement turnaround plans or be taken over by charter-school operators. It would, however, allow schools that raise their grades to exit turnaround plans.

“We’re trying to make sure that we treat everybody fairly,” Senate Education Chairman Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, told reporters. “We still want to have assessments, we still want to have the tests, but we don’t want to have consequences, as we heard over and over from the school boards.”

Another proposal by Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, was tacked on to the bill Tuesday to allow parents of students in kindergarten through fifth grade to request that their children be retained in their current grade levels in the 2021-2022 school year.

Parents would have to submit requests based on “academic reasons” to school principals. Under the bill, students’ teachers, parents and principals would then be required to have a “collaborative discussion” about retaining the children.

Gruters said state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran worked with the Senate committee in crafting the bill. After the pandemic hit the state in March 2020, Corcoran issued an executive order that canceled statewide assessments during the 2019-2020 school year.

He also has faced calls to cancel testing accountability or nix exams for the current school year.

“A lot of the provisions in this bill came directly from, let’s say, executive orders issued by the governor or Richard Corcoran,” Gruters said. “We think that … they’ve done a great job throughout this pandemic and we’re codifying a lot of things into law.”

The bill is also aimed at shielding colleges and universities from lawsuits about decisions to shutter campuses last spring during the pandemic, forcing students to learn online. Class-action lawsuits have been filed seeking to recover money that students paid with the expectation of on-campus learning.

“This liability (protection) is about tuition and fees. Any type of written contracts, or dorms, meal plans and stuff, I think that’s still fair game. But in terms of tuition and fees, if they were provided the online instruction, I think it’s fair to say that they received the benefits,” Gruters said.

Under the proposal, legal protections for colleges and universities would be applied retroactively to any lawsuit filed after March 1, 2020 --- the date COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency in Florida.

Some Democratic lawmakers took issue with providing what they characterized as overbroad protections for colleges and universities.

“It appears that this bill may sort of void their pending litigation, or any prospect of them receiving any type of refund,” Thurston, an attorney, said.

Gruters maintained that institutions should not be penalized for making decisions forced on them by the pandemic.

“Obviously, with the pandemic, you never know what’s going to happen and I think the schools adjusted the best they could and provided online learning. Just because a student did not get maybe that experience of being on campus that they normally would receive doesn’t mean that they didn’t get the education that they were given,” Gruters said.

Sandra Harris, a lobbyist for Nova Southeastern University, supported the lawsuit protections and said nine private colleges and several public institutions face class-action lawsuits.

“The irony is if we had required students to go to campus to finish their semester we would have been faced with lawsuits. If we had just suspended educating our students, we would have been faced with lawsuits,” Harris said.